Most of us love a good writing workshop, and for an hour or two we’re in heaven. But why go to one when we could have a whole weekend or even a week of them? Three key writers’ conferences take place between the end of July through to the beginning of September, giving delegates a plethora of workshops and talks in which to immerse themselves.
Many writers use them as a holiday. They are break from the day job and the family. And while there’s plenty of opportunity to relax, disco, sparkle, or even listen to a Welsh male voice choir, if you spend your time wisely, these events have the power to further your writing business and career. So is there a business-case for attending?
July – Writers’ Holiday – The Fishguard Bay Hotel, Pembrokeshire
Sally Trueman-Dicken attended her first Writers’ Holiday in 2010, when it was originally based at the Caerleon University campus, before it moved to Fishguard. ‘I discovered Writers’ Holiday by accident,’ she says, ‘when a member of my writing group mentioned it in passing. Until then I had not realised such events existed. I absolutely loved every minute of it and have attended every year since. What appeals to me is that I always feel so welcome. The hosts, Anne and Gerry Hobbs, go out of their way to make you feel like a special guest.’
Going to one of these festivals for the first time can feel daunting, but remember you already have something in common with everyone else there: a love of writing.
‘There is a wide choice of courses to suit everybody,’ Sally explains. ‘There is no pressure to attend courses. You can sample a course and change if it is not suitable. The tutors cater for newcomers and old hands with equal ability. There is always someone to sit with at mealtime, even if you are there for the first time. Everyone mixes well. You might find yourself sitting next to an author who has published over sixty novels, or another first timer with talent, energy and enthusiasm to share.’
Sally’s attendance has helped her fulfil a writing dream. ‘This year I achieved a very important goal I had set myself. The People’s Friend magazine accepted a short story of mine. It was my very first submission. Becoming a published author, albeit a short story in a magazine, has been a long process. I could not get over the barrier of submitting. Attending classes with such writers as Della Galton, Lynne Hackles, Linda Lewis and Irene Yates gave me all the information I needed to write and submit, but I could not bring myself to send that envelope. It was at the Writers’ Holiday last year, talking with fellow writers who encouraged me to send in my story, that I gained the confidence to post it off. I was amazed to receive a letter of encouragement from Shirley Blair, the fiction editor, along with the news that it would need some vigorous rewriting.’
What these festivals offer is not just the workshops during the event, but an opportunity to make friends you can turn to at any time of year.
‘It was then that I turned to my Writers’ Holiday friends to ask advice,’ Sally explains. ‘They were brilliant and soon the first rewrite was in the post. An email followed that submission: the second half was perfect but the first half needed some attention. I needed to “show not tell”.’
In addition to the Monday to Saturday summer Writers’ Holiday at Fishguard, there is also a winter weekend Writers’ Holiday in February. Armed with her feedback, Sally chose her course carefully for maximum benefit. ‘I attended a marvellous course by Rachel Thomas on The Novel. One of her sessions was on “Show, Don’t Tell” and suddenly the penny dropped. A lightbulb moment. I got it. This is what the Writers’ Holiday has given me: the knowledge and support to fulfil my goal of getting a story published in The People’s Friend.’
August – Swanwick Writers’ Summer School – The Hayes Conference Centre, Derbyshire
Known affectionately as Swanwick, this Saturday to Friday summer school is believed to be the oldest residential writers summer school in the world, with a history going back nearly 70 years. This year, Maggie Cobbett will be going for her 11th consecutive year. ‘Swanwick is the one week in my year that is non-negotiable,’ she beams.
Name badges are handed out on arrival at all of these conferences. However, anyone attending Swanwick for the first time is given a white name badge. This does two things: it helps first time attendees spot other first timers, giving them two things in common – writing, and being new to Swanwick. But it also means if a new face looks lost, it’s not long before an experienced Swanwicker offers to help.
Maggie was hooked by the variety of courses and the ability to mix with fellow writers. ‘I like the flexibility to pick and choose from the programme, with no obligation to sign up in advance. Time spent with fellow writers at mealtimes, or down by the lake, or in the bar can be just as valuable.’
Maggie’s found her regular attendance at Swanwick over the years has helped her improve her writing, and now she’s reaping the benefits. ‘The encouragement from experts in my preferred writing genres has really paid off,’ she says. ‘Many of my short stories have now been published and a novel I’ve been working on for ten years came out last summer – just in time for the Swanwick bookshop.’
All of these conferences offer facilities for any writer to sell their books. That includes delegates as well as tutors. It doesn’t matter whether you’re traditionally published, or self-published, it’s worth taking along a small stock of books with you. Check in advance with the relevant conference what their system for book sales is. With so many writers bringing books to sell it is important there’s a system in place to manage stock. The book stalls make for interesting browsing at any event. That’s if you can find some time between all of the workshops and talks.
Not only did Swanwick help Maggie with her writing dreams, it also generated a new writing project. ‘I once mentioned to a committee member that I’d made my Swanwick fees by writing magazine fillers. I was invited to run a workshop on that subject the following year.’ But it didn’t end there, because Maggie took the project one step further. ‘That led to the publication of Easy Money For Writers And Wannabes, which is my bestselling book so far.’
September – NAWGFest – University of Warwick
Renamed this year as NAWGFest, the National Association of Writers’ Groups writing festival meets at the University of Warwick, on the outskirts of Coventry. This year’s event will be Jo Sadler’s tenth. So what’s the appeal?
‘It may sound obvious,’ Jo explains, ‘but it is having an entire weekend focussed on writing, on being a writer, in the company of such a variety of writers. I enjoy learning about different forms of writing in the workshops, as well as developing my existing skills, and being able to talk to inspirational tutors about their writing lives.’
Jo’s regular attendance has provided the stepping stones to further her writing career. ‘I have been writing stories since I was a child but going to my first NAWG festival was the point at which I started to take my writing more seriously. I entered the 100-word mini-tale festival competition while I was there, never having written flash fiction before, and to my amazement came away with a very smart looking runner-up certificate. My experiences at the festival and in the competition were great boosts to my confidence as a writer. This gave me the desire and confidence to take longer courses at Lancaster University and the UEA.’
And Jo’s success doesn’t end there. ‘I am now about to complete an MSt in Creative Writing and have two literary agencies interested in the novel I am writing. My NAWG 100-word mini-tale certificate still has pride of place above my writing desk.’
Jo has since signed with one of those agents, something that seems a world away from her first NAWG festival. ‘I knew no-one and was a little apprehensive about stepping into its writerly world. Being on my own was a great incentive to get to know people over dinner and in workshops. No matter how diverse our lives in general, our writing was always an easy starting point for a conversation. As a novice writer I felt uncertain about what would be expected of me in workshops, if any writing I had to produce would be good enough, but the atmosphere was always very supportive and without pressure.’
These writing festivals are there to make of what you want of them. As these three dedicated delegates show, regular attendance could help you achieve many of your writing dreams, and more.
Top Tips For Festival First-timers:
Sally Trueman-Dicken: ‘Join in all the writing exercises and make yourself read them out at any opportunity. I was very shy to begin with, but confidence comes with time. It is very empowering to have people listen to what you have composed.’
Maggie Cobbett: ‘Pace yourself. The first time I attended I tried to do just about everything and was completely burnt out halfway through the week.’
Jo Sadler: ‘Make the most of opportuities to engage with other writers, be they professional writers and tutors, or those taking their first steps in their writing careers. And definitely have a go at the mini-tale competition.’
Business Directory – Website Addresses
Writers Holiday: http://www.writersholiday.net
Swanwick Writers’ Summer School: http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk
(c) Simon Whaley